Research - 'Strange Tools' - Chapter 3 by Ally McGinn

Note from chapter 3 - Designers by nature

  • The arts are a process of manufacture. ‘Tied to the manual.’

  • There is an intrinsic link between technology and the authors previously defined ‘organised activities’. The activities involve the tool, although it's worth noting here that this presupposes an open view of what a tool might be. Tools are the way we achieve organised activities.

  • The author suggests that ‘technologies are patterns of organisation’.

  • ‘Art presupposes technology and can only be understood with that background’ the author relates this to the idea of the exterior of a work. That we understand things by understanding the context in which they sit, which is another way of summarising Derridas theory of the ‘parergon’.

  • ‘Painting responds to the fact that we are organised by pictures’. The exterior of art, or the ‘Artworld’ and the world around and inside of us are the source material artists work with. Our visual history, as well as visual associations, are used by artists to communicate with their audience. So this quote could also read - painting processes the fact that we are organised by pictures.

  • ‘Failure is one of arts most important channels of investigation.’ This distinguishes art from simply an act of creation. The process, including it's failures, are equally important. Which is a very important note for my work, and one of the questions I'm looking to explore.

  • We are technologists. As the author stated in earlier chapters we are naturally artists and dancers, but we are also natural technologists, we make and use tools, we even judge the intelligence of other creatures based on their use of tools.

  • Modern humans emerged 50,000 years ago, when use of tools began to increase. One explanation is that we got smarter, that our brains evolved to be more intelligence. An alternative explanation offers the idea of collaboration, community and an increasingly less nomadic lifestyle led to a collective development. These paragraphs are incredibly interesting, and the I'd recommend anyone with an interest to have a listen/read. The implications of this logical, and substantiated theory lean towards an understanding in the importance of collaboration - as a race but also much more locally.

    • If this theory is taken as true, then it is also true that technology isn't what enabled us to develop, at least not at first, it was the collective use of technology that began a continued development.

  • ‘It isn't only that we use tools, we think with them’ this is an important thought, we are able to bring those tools into our purposes, beginning theoretically. We have a wide range of tools at our disposal, and learning about them can expand our thinking. The way we use tools can teach us to think about things differently, similarly we can use art to teach us to see things differently.

  • Tools, and in this analogy this can be extended to almost any ‘thing’, are only useful to those who have the contextual knowledge to need them. The author uses the example of a door handle, which is only useful to those who have a need for a door, whatever their reason. They also presuppose our size, dexterity and strength. We have to be able to use the tools, and know about them.

    • I'm not entirely sure this is relevant, but I found it interesting nonetheless and may come back to it one day.

    • For the door handle to exist it requires a foundational development in a variety of fields. The existence of the doorhandle (or any other object) depends on it's history.

  • Without tools we are not much more than our bodies contain. Most of the things we define ourselves through are founded in technologies. This also applies to knowledge. We have little knowledge within ourselves about the universe and human history. If we imagine we are plucked out of our universe and placed in another with no knowledge of our own, very few of us would be able to accurately describe much about our universe or it's history/technology/knowledge.

  • Technology evolves alongside us. It is ‘skilful activities’.

    • This is both at a societal level and individually.

  • The author defines organised activities as ‘technological practices’. In this way technology is rooted into the activity itself. They are equally rooted in who we are and what we do. ‘Technology doesn't only extend what we can do also what we are.’

  • Technologies are often traditionally thought of as things (screwdrivers, computers, paintbrushes) but this chapter restates their definition as processes.

    • Technologies provide solutions to problems - but also provide more questions/problems. They ‘invite and incite’ movement. Which can also be said of art. These two words together are a brilliant description.

  • The author discusses engineers but this can be replaced by artists. “To be an engineer today is to jump right into the middle of an evolutionary process. Taking up where others have left off…..[they] don't have to think about the evolutionary history of their practices but everything they do think about, the problems they are interested in and are important, is determined by this history.”

  • Writing, or mark making, is a tool used to explore, understand, record, and process information around us. Maths is a basic, and extremely complicated, example of this. We can do extremely complex things because we can write them down.

    • We are not all studying the characters we note or the items we are using in our mark making. Those characters and items are largely arbitrary, when considered next to the true object of study - our subject. The marks we make are ways of studying.

    • We use mark making to reach things we cannot reach by thought or action alone. ‘External symbols’.

  • Andy Clark and David Chalmers, put it this way - “where do you stop, and where does the rest of the world begin?”

  • Paraphrased slightly - ‘Art takes its impetus from the fact that we are organised but lost in that organisation.’ In this view art (as an overall subject) is a way of understanding the universe (or some small subsection of it) and our place in it, or in relation to it.


Noe, A (2016) ‘Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature.’ Narrated by Tom Perkins. Avaliable at: (Downloaded: 24/10/17).


Research - 'Strange Tools' - Chapter 2 by Ally McGinn

Noe, A (2016) ‘Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature.’ Narrated by Tom Perkins. Avaliable at: (Downloaded: 24/10/17).

I'm finding I'm writing more notes listening, as opposed to when I read a text. When reading I make annotations (occasionally long ones) and highlight but while listening my thought have been going a bit deeper. When reading this tends to only happen in reflections on the text or when trying to apply that knowledge elsewhere - to this blog for example.

Of course it could simply be that I am finding this text very aligned with my interests in the function of art, although it discusses that function from the perspective of it's process, rather than the function of the art object. This text is one that fits very well with what I am thinking about at the moment.


Notes from chapter 2

In this chapter the author continues to compare aspects of art to other activities, in a very interesting way. This time, dancing and choreography. Where the artist is the choreographer.

  • we act out of habit but we are often unaware of those habitual activities.

  • The exploration of dancing as an organised activity is interesting for me after a visit to the museum in Exeter two weeks ago where I saw an unexpected traditional gypsy dance, which was unchoreographed and more akin to a conversation than a predictable routine the dancers followed.

  • “If you can read you will read, the sign almost reads you” interesting in term of semiotics. A literal statement that I cannot deny, and I doubt anyone else would. When we see language we read it, and our minds often create words when there are none (number plates that look like other words or names are a good example of this) so desperate is the act of reading when seeing. Once a language is learned it becomes, at some basic level, an automatic activity.

  • If we take the metaphor for art, that the author has encouraged, then he suggests here that art is an organised activity that we participate in but do not create. This would seem to align with Barthes, Derrida and Danto (to varying degrees). Artists nominate and show art, they explore it's possibilities and represent it.

  • A staged activity - one undertaken for a purpose that is supposed to be read, interpreted or enjoyed. An exhibit.

  • The artist's desires and intentions are not the same as the intentions of the activity of art. (The choreographer and someone dancing in a club, have different aims)

  • We are artists, it is an organised activity of which we all undertake. Artists expose that activity and use it to communicate some idea or emotion.

  • We are unknowing artists by nature. Art gives us the opportunity to examine further the depth of art and the implications on the way we use it.

  • Natural/cultural

  • Re-organisational practices.

  • Art is philosophy, revealing something Heidegger called something concealed hidden, implicit or left in the background.

  • Plato - recollection - the author sees this not as a sign that we once knew more than we know now, but a reorganisation of what we already know, including things we don't know we know.

  • Wittgenstein suggested that philosophy is a question saying, “I don't know where I am” basically, “I'm lost”.

  • Different neighbourhoods of consciousness - a nice way to describe the relationship between art, philosophy and other organised activities.

  • Choreographing is the philosophy of movement…..this would imply that art is the philosophy of...something.

    • Not that the two are related, but they are similar activities in purpose and method (to an extent)

  • “They are practices, not activities, methods of research”


Research - Meaning by Ally McGinn

Meaning in art

Dewey posited that art is a way of understanding human culture, primarily the culture in which it was created. Heidegger agrees that the study of art, and the making of it, can be a form of understanding human history and progress.

The reason is a simple one, or at least it can be. To understand a piece of art we need to understand it's context, which includes information about the world at the time of making.

When combined with the artist's intentions, the reality of the work, it's place in the wider art world and it's place in the world ‘outside’ of art, it forms a language of art, in particular that piece.

The language of art is not a literal one. It is complicated and open to interpretation. Understanding the language of art aids in the interpretation of it.

Interpretation is a difficult word, one Derrida didn't use; because, Derrida believed, it presupposes a ‘pure’ or ‘real’ interpretation, where one doesn't exist.

Interpretation is dependent on perspective, and therefore is subjective. Meaning is subjective.

This can be seen in the study of semiotics, the meaning attributed to something often reaches a consensus at the basic level but each sign can contain potentially infinite signifiers, it simply depends on who is processing the sign - and more importantly who they are, how they think, what they know, and what they have experienced.

It is the combination of these factors that determines the interpretation of a sign. There are of course limits to each, but when considered as a whole the possibilities are numerous.

Semiology is the study of signs, and anything can be a sign, if seen in the ‘right’ ways.

Therefore meaning is, while limited in specifics, open in its possibilities.


If we take it to be true that art is a form of language, then it must be true that it communicates.

The language through which art communicates is specialised, there is an ‘Artworld’, as defined by Arthur Danto, in which this art language is the native tongue.

It is a skill. One that, like many others, can be improved upon over time. At first we may need explanations to help us open our eyes to the possible meanings of an artwork, but as we learn more about the artworks and when we actively ‘look’ for the signs (or possibly ‘words’ in this analogy) the language becomes easier to see.

Semiology is a useful lens through which we can explore the language of art.


The artist and the interpreter don't have to agree on the meaning, and often don't.

The important thing here to remember is that there is no pure meaning, we are fallible creatures and meaning is applied by humans to the reality we find, or the ideas we explore. Meaning is fallible.

In ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ by Wimsatt and Beardsley, the authors argue that the artist's meaning is irrelevant. Once the artwork is seen it the meaning given to it during it's creation no longer matters, it is what it is, and what it is will be interpreted by others.

I feel that there is a lot of evidence, at least anecdotal, that suggests that the artists cannot be seen as totally irrelevant after creation. For the very reasons seen above, to study art we need to know it's context, which includes the artists intentions. Whether or not the audience agrees is far more open. Artists also guide meaning, both during creation and after. (although in the case of after it can feel a defensive task - until a consensus is reached on the artist's status of course. Few would disagree with the artist's intentions when written on the wall of the RA for example)


When the artist and the interpreter do disagree, it is worth remembering that interpretation is a lens. It explores at least one facet of an artwork, and rarely sees them all.

A ‘good’ interpretation could be argued to be one that explores many facets, including some of itself.

Christine Freeland describes it in this way - “A good interpretation must be grounded in reasons and evidence, and should provide a rich, complex, and illuminating way to comprehend a work of art. Sometimes an interpretation can even transform an experience of art from repugnance to appreciation and understanding.”

And so we come to the importance of meaning, or the benefits of it.

Art is an immensely broad subject, given a three letter word to describe it. No two artworks are the same, and when they appear to be they are only highlighting that very issue. The interpretation of art aids in our understanding of what it does.

These ‘things’ (artworks) do something. They exist and they have a function. That function is physical and  cerebral, and meaning is central to the cerebral process.

Whether we ‘like’ and artwork or not, ignoring the meaning in favour of our initial personal opinion misses something important about the artwork and the role of art in human society; to make us think.

Note - here the word ‘think’ is defined to include the act of actively seeing, reacting or otherwise interacting with the artwork. After all there is always an element of thinking involved.


Writing this post has highlighted for me that we each have a methodology when we look at art. We can be said to be trying to understand that methodology, and potentially broaden it, when we open our minds to art and explore works for more than their initial ‘like’ or ‘dislike’.

As a practicing artist it is also interesting to note that meaning can become clear to an artist as well as the viewer. I've known many artists who have ‘suddenly realised’ their work is about an interest they had years previously or a personal issue they didn't realise they were working through in the studio.

Meaning isn't always intended, at least consciously.

Meaning is, to quote a phrase coined by popular culture but no less appropriate, bigger on the inside.

Next post - I'd like to explore more about why we create art, and the purposes of the activity itself.


Danto, A C. (1964) ‘The Artworld’. The Journal of Philosophy, Volume (61): Pages 571-584.

Derrida, J. (1978) The truth in painting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, J. (2005) Art as Experience. New York: Berkley publishing group.

Freeland, C. (2002) But is it Art?. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth (2017) [Exhibition]. Royal Academy, London. 23 September - 10 December 2017.

Marriner, R. (2002) ‘Derrida and the Parergon’. In: Smith, P and Wilde, C. eds. A companion to art theory. Blackwell: 349-359.

Marriner, R (2012) ‘Reframing the picture, recasting the object’. In: Heywood, I and Sandywell, B. eds. (2012) The handbook of visual culture. London: Berg.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010) ‘Heidegger’s Aesthetics’ [Online] Stanford University. Avaliable from: [Accessed - 13/10/17].

Wimsatt, W K and Beardsley M C. (1946) ‘The Intentional Fallacy’. The Sewanee Review, Volume, (54): Page 468-488. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 17.09.2016].

Note/Thought - The semiotic influence of traffic lights by Ally McGinn

Semiotic influence of traffic lights. Green = go, red = stop. This is a very ingrained idea, at least our culture. We are exposed to it from a young age and failure to read the signs and follow the implied signification can be fatal.

Idea - traffic lights in a gallery that respond to the viewer's distance from the work. Stopping them from approaching….would it?

Point to note - in my work I am very interested in what the responses are, even if I don't see them. I need to take this into account in the production of my work, I can facilitate certain responses.

Impose a reaction?


Research - Semiotics part 2 by Ally McGinn

When last posting i was exploring Barthes and Semiotics. This is a subject i'm continuing to find fascinating, and have made copious notes on.

For the sake of some self-imposed limitations i'm going to keep this as a short text with some of the most interesting things i have found.


Barthes makes an important distinction when considering the word ‘natural’ (which could be swapped for ‘normal’) that it is a reflection of those making the rules as opposed to a true reflection of a quantitative average.

To Barthes the fact that we do certain things (including, but not limited to: eating, sleeping, reproduction, language, etc) is natural, but the way we do them, and the ways we are taught (either consciously or subconsciously) to do them is a form of semiotics. In that, they have meaning to our society, and with the correct signs and information those meanings can be deciphered BUT those nuances differ from place to place.

Could it then be said that the natural parts of human nature are those that are universal?  Or is it closer to the truth to say that the natural parts are the activities, and the study of meaning is something slightly different?


Barthes and Saussure agree that the words we use (as in the sounds made when we say them or the shapes formed when we write them) are relatively arbitrary. Their only meaning comes from a collaborative agreement, made long before most of us were born.

Changing the word or sound doesn't change the meaning, or the thing itself.

Interestingly a case in response to this would seem to be art itself. The artist can claim an object as ‘Art’ and change what it is, or at least our understanding of it. The object doesn't change through the nomination, our perception of it does. (But that shift in perception is reliant on an element of trust from the viewer for the artist, and a belief in historical canon and the value of Art. - as it always is, it is not as simple as changing the name, the perspective shift requires a far more complex negotiation than that)

If the words we use are largely arbitrary then they become once more a tool in our understanding and experience of our world. We use the structure of language to apply structure to a world that we are only beginning to understand.

These structures can be seen in every element of our lives as humans. Even time.

The addition of leap seconds are an interesting example. Days are getting minutely longer all the time, but the increase is subject to various physical factors and is hard to predict, so a consensus is reached by academic leaders in the field and we occasionally have an extra second added to our calendars - often causing chaos in our computer systems.

The structure we have applied to time on Earth is utterly ignored by the physical reality of the planet.


There can be no definitive meaning attached to an object or sign, because those meanings are changeable.


Barthes wrote and theorised about far more than the subject of semiotics. In ‘The Death of the Author’ a text exploring ideas around originality (among a few others) Barthes posits that originality is a clouded subject because of the interrelation between the internal and the external (to use Derrida’s dual explanation - which certainly fits here) meaning, that it is difficult to create something when there is so much already out there. We are not isolated beings living with no contextual, cultural, social or other intellectual input. We are sponges, from the moment we begin to process information, we store that information.

The other important point in this text is that meaning doesn't so much originate in the author but in the audience. Again, similar in ways to Derrida's theories.

Barthes stresses that meaning is generated in a form that he talks about as intertextuality.  When you read or watch something the meaning taken from it are to do with things we perceives to exist between the thing you are experiencing and other things you have experienced in the past.


This is a shorter post than i am used to writing, but i believe it shows a few examples of the areas of interest that i’ve found while reading Barthes writings, and writings about him.The subject of semiotics is far deeper than i have even began to cover here, and a primarily linguistic exploration, however the importance of semiotics in visual culture (of which art is firmly entrenched) cannot be denied.
Semiotics might have been conceived in a literary form but it has impact in any and all areas we want it to, it is after all the study of meaning and humans are very good at applying meaning to anything.

Semiotics could be expanded to be - the study of anything that has a ‘subject’, because once we have labelled that ‘subject’ it has a form of a sign. The label itself is a sign.

Coming soon - Writing these short summaries is encouraging more research on the idea of art as an organising structure and its function in the role of human existence. Research, at least in the very near future, will move towards this arena.


Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text. St Ives: Fontana Press.

Barthes, R. ‘Death of the Author’, in Leitch, V.B. et al. (ed.) The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism: (2010) USA: Norton, pp. 1322-1326.

Barthes, Roland (1957) Mythologies.

Barthes, Roland ([1964] 1967). Elements of Semiology (trans. Annette Lavers & Colin Smith). London: Jonathan Cape.

Culler, J (2001) Barthes: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Derrida, J. (1978) The truth in painting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Research - Semiotics, Part 1 by Ally McGinn

On semiotics

The first real, intense, interest I have had since starting the MA (and here I distinguish a desire to research to improve my practice from an interest in a subject) has been semiotics.

It comes as a result of a discussion board created by our tutor after a lecture by Robin Marriner on the nature of visual communication and the important relationship with semiotics and context.

The discussion board was placed for us to articulate semiotics in relation to our own practices.

I've had an interest in semiotics since researching for my dissertation - which focussed on the important elements in understanding art, which contains an element of semiotics.

While semiotics is rooted in language when we use it in art it becomes something more. By nature it deals with both the entomology and ontology of a subject.

The sign is made up of two distinct elements, the signifier and signified, which relate to the nature of something and the meaning we attribute to it.

For example: the word apple, and the meaning we take from it (it's fruitness, religion, the computer company, apple pie, New York)

The look of an apple, the sound of its crunch, its feel and it's taste, which might be used more in art, are signifiers, they are the things that tell us it's an apple. So can we explain it as - Signifier (physical reality) and, signified (the language we use around it).

Semiotics is used constantly in our world. Arguably it is what language is. Saussure described language as part of semiotics, while Barthes positioned the opposite.

Given my current knowledge, I am unable to disagree with Saussure. Language is the form semiotics take. This can be shown in the fact that we could take any part of human activity and our explorations and explanations of it would be a form of semiotics.

The only form of activity that has no relation to semiotics would arguably be found in philosophy or metaphysics, a concept without a signifier.  Anything that has a subject is experienced semiotically.

This feels like the perfect moment to stop for now and read more about Barthes argument that semiotics is a part of language.

The next post will explore semiotics a little further but will remain short, following that I will explore some of the signs in my practice.


Semiotics in my practice

In relation to my own practice semiotics is extremely important. One of the concerns i often focus on is - the understanding and interpretation of what art is - which requires a certain reading of art in the first instance.

In order to subvert or distort an idea, we must first understand the idea. Given that art is primarily a visual subject, and a very subjective one, many of the qualifiers are a form of sign - eg: an object's location in an art gallery, it's medium, function and presentation.

Understanding the implications of these signs has been something I have been interested in to form the foundation for experiments in studio practice.

In particular, Derrida’s theories about the frame (‘The Parergon’) and the implications when we understand the internal/external web that surrounds any artwork.

Semiotics is apparent in multiple places in my studio, from the subverted signs that inform something as art, to the overt signs on canvas placed on a worktop to collect the process of making (which often include words, arrows, numbers and diagrams) these signs and their signifiers are an important element of my practice.

I find semiotics to be a fascinating subject with a fractal nature, the more you look the more you will see.

I particularly enjoy the moment when we first perceive a sign, when we realise something we took as tacit is actually implicit or visa versa.


Barthes, Roland (1973) Mythologies. UK: Hill and Wang.

Barthes, Roland ([1964] 1967). Elements of Semiology (trans. Annette Lavers & Colin Smith). London: Jonathan Cape.

Chandler, Daniel (2004) Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge.

Marriner, R. (2002) ‘Derrida and the Parergon’. In: Smith, P and Wilde, C. eds. A companion to art theory. Blackwell: 349-359.

Marriner, R. (2015) Making and the Contemporary. Bath Spa University. October-December 2015.

Marriner, R (2017) Meanings in Visual Culture. Research Methodologies module. Bath Spa University. 17th October 2017.

Saussure, Ferdinand de ([1916] 1983): Course in General Linguistics (trans. Roy Harris). London: Duckworth. 


Research Methodologies - Exploring methods by Ally McGinn

I have a few books on research on hold in the library, the MA cohort at Bath Spa is keen and the wait might be a few weeks. In the interim I've found a few great sources of information online and I'm going to attempt to use some of the methods introduced on Tuesday to explore a few ideas.

Research Methodologies - methods

Before getting into the meat of what I’m going to research, I thought it might be a good idea to have a firmer grasp of the how.

'-ology' means there has been a debate or study. So in Methodology there has been a discussion and study about the methods themselves. Decisions made. Arguments defended. (How you completed the study.) These decisions add up to your approach – the outcome of your methodology or your methodological considerations.

A research methodology is the combination of methods, perspectives, and understandings around the way we research (the study of the methods/research itself). Understanding the variety of methods that form a methodology can help to formulate questions and direct research into new directions. (The other elements of my methodology, including the theoretical perspective, will be explored in the next post)

Different approaches can form different results, especially when the methodology isn’t understood. There are things that can affect the results of research we are doing that are assumed to be true or false. Those assumptions can refute the data/information if not explored and accounted for.  Exploring the methodology can allow an understanding of those assumptions and an incorporation of them into the research.


A research method is a tool or structure used to explore the research. They are usually explainable (to an extent) and I struggled to find an exhaustive list of them, as their inclusion can be as subjective as their processes. Roughly put; it is the way the research happens.

Data gathering, and the forms it takes.


Three methods have struck me as being interesting for my own research at this stage (although I may end up using others later) and I have arguably been using these in some form in my research to date, albeit unknowingly and in an incomplete sense.

  • Haptic (primarily involving touch, and the physical interaction with the subject) in hindsight I can say that this is a common research method in the studio, which is a place for the haptic.
  • Objectivism (Seeing the reality of the object in its component parts, and understanding the object to take it further) this logical approach seems like something I would enjoy and echoes the Derridian theory of deconstruction, which I use as a source of inspiration when none is readily available.
  • and, Semiotic (concerning the relationship between image and meaning. Communication through recognised signs and symbols) which I've always found as interesting as language - both are agreed upon constructs that we use in daily life, often without being consciously aware of it.

As an exercise I’m going to use these three methods to understand how we might explore different elements of research.

In this case;

  • a well known artwork (Duchamp’s Fountain),
  • a piece of my own work,
  • a theory (Derrida’s parergon),

There are far more topics, subjects and ‘things’ that could be explored like this, but this is a short exercise to help me understand the terms and the, potential, practical uses of them.


Before continuing to the exploration, I’m going to solidify my understanding of a few words and terms. Ones that might come up again.

Epistemological vs ontological

Not methods in themselves these words are more concerned with the theoretical perspective and understanding the type of questions being asked.

Epistemology is the way we know things, about the understanding of knowledge and the methods of finding it, primarily useful to understand the biases and perspectives when researching. The –ology of knowledge.

Ontology is about the reality of the thing being studied, relating to the question “what is it?” and personally most often in my life this is a practical research method.

Note – Epistemology comes from the Greek for ‘knowledge’ and ontology from the Greek for ‘being’ or ‘to be’.

Plato saw a difference between ‘episteme’ (knowledge worth knowing) and ‘doxa’ (everyday knowledge).  Interestingly when thinking about the entemology of these words I found myself interested in the balance between the two. If we take the everyday knowledge as implicit knowledge, or knowledge that goes without saying, then an argument can be made that my studio practice is an exploration of the doxa of artistic practice. If those assumptions can be taken as true then it is arguable that once we focus on doxa it becomes episteme. Many artists take this approach in a practical sense, using the everyday to explore deeper ideas.

Qualitative vs quantitative

These terms are associated with the nature of the research being done. In the most simplistic terms the distinction is set upon the balance between tacit (qualitative) and explicit (quantitative) data.

The two overlap in many ways and we can make them overlap in more by directing primary research. The suitability of each is related to the aims and objectives of the research, as well as the availability of data.


A dense subject, and one I cannot profess at this stage to completely understand, but for the purpose of this exploration, semiotics, as used here, can be described in the following way.

Semiotics gained popularity towards the late 1960’s and two key figures are Roland Barthes (particularly his collected essays Mythologies, which I am planning to discuss in a separate post) and Ferdinand de Saussure (generally considered a pioneer of linguistics and semiotics itself). A study of tacit and explicit signs experienced in daily life with other humans. These signs can be the obvious functional signs found in our lives, but are more commonly the subconscious and more subjective interpretation of information found around us. The location of these signs is seemingly only limited to where a researcher might look.

“semiology aims to take in any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all of these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment: these constitute, if not languages, at least systems of signification” Barthes (1967) pg. 9

The sign can be dissected into two parts, as defined by Saussure, the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’.  The signifier is the form of the sign (often the physical form of it), and the signified is the concept we understand it to represent.

The sign is the combination, and relationship between the two. A single signifier can have different meanings, when seen in different locations, which is a simple example of how this complicated subject becomes much more so in practice. By definition semiotics is subjective, an interpretive method.

Umberto Eco has taken it to it’s most basic “semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign” which could arguably be anything.


The Exploration

The following exploration is short in places, and longer in others. It is far from complete but instead served as a chance for me to attempt to unpick these ideas and see what they might look like. These are subjective interpretations, based on my knowledge, perspective and research.

I found that the objectivist method, involving treating the subject objectively, listing its details and understanding its parts to know it further, most accurately described the subject, so those are listed first to understand the reality of what we are looking at.

Ally McGinn (2016)  Even babies lie.  Acrylic, oil and ink on canvas, 144 x 99 x 3 cm

Ally McGinn (2016) Even babies lie. Acrylic, oil and ink on canvas, 144 x 99 x 3 cm

A piece of my work - Even Babies Lie (2017)

Objectivist - This piece is part of a larger series of works called the ‘Working Surfaces’ series. Canvases are placed in functional studio or workshop spaces and left to record the evidence of making and process. The resulting paintings are then stretched, functional canvas, nominated as art.  This piece spent nearly three months covering the worktop in the paint workshop at Sion Hill. Other than myself and the paint technician the purpose and eventual use of this canvas as art was unknown.

They are intentionally misleading, pretending to be something they are not, but in the act of pretending they become it anyway; Art.

They can be said to simultaneously reject and celebrate the artists’ ego, and therefore the artist themselves. The division of labor and deskilling question the value of these as artworks.

The titles of these works are taken from an element on the surface on them, a further dissociation from the artist.

They objectify time. A record of a period in an artist’s studio, containing a variety of signatures, they are naturally narrative and unintentionally expressive objects.

As an object this piece is 144 x 99 x 3cm’s in size, the canvas is not totally taught on the stretcher (a result of stretching something used functionally is sometimes a loosening of the weave) and is made of canvas, pen, acrylic and oil paint, primers and other substances used in the creation or experimentation of art.

Haptic - in the first sense the haptic experience of this work is rooted in the texture of the surface. With no change from functional worktop to stretched canvas the surface is covered in dust, paint, glue and pen marks. The piece looks rough and real.

Semiotic - there are a few obvious symbols on the surface of the piece. Including the titular graffiti, a sketch of a design and other numbers and words. The graffiti is obvious as such due to the time taken to write it (which we can see evidence in the depth and width of the pen marks). Fainter notes indicate working through an idea, a rough note taken quickly to visually understand it. Including the diagrams these are marks of explanation, a communication of an idea that is paused for a moment in this surface.
Other visual signs are condensed in the bottom right corner of the piece, paint and other substances that show the edges of other works created on top of them. The marks, the right angles and jagged brushstrokes, are a sign that we can interpret to show where work once sat, because these marks are incidental they are all signs of other activity, and can be read semiotically.

In this case the methods show very different elements of the work.

Marcel Duchamp (1917, replica 1964)  Fountain.  Porcelain. 36 x 48 x 61 cm.

Marcel Duchamp (1917, replica 1964) Fountain. Porcelain. 36 x 48 x 61 cm.

A well known artwork - Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1917)

Objectivist - looking at this piece objectively is relatively easy. The purpose of this work is to encourage these questions.

Created 100 years ago the piece was Duchamp’s first readymade - A series of everyday objects, transformed into art through nomination, readymades are defined not by their aesthetic qualities but their conceptual ideology. Characterised by their lack of interaction from the artist these objects inspired challenge.  The challenge was implicit, although not necessarily totally intentional.  

This piece was a shop bought urinal, with a single interaction from the artist, the name ‘R Mutt’ and the year roughly drawn on the side.

Objectively the object is mostly, unchanged, but through the nomination of it as art, and the subsequent change in perspective, the perceptions and purpose was forever altered.  

Haptic - I saw this piece at the Tate Modern earlier this year. The haptic experience in this case has similar observations to the objectivist method. When looking at the work I was struck by the reality of it. The curves of the porcelain and the weight of it cannot be conveyed through an image. (although the weight was obviously based on a visual examination and intuitive feeling) Given that the object is arguably the point of Duchamp's readymades this piece shows the importance of the haptic method of examination.

Semiotic - The biggest sign of this piece is the fact that it is a urinal. We read the shape, material and cultural understanding of the object and read it as something we would normally find in a men’s bathroom. Again I find that this method perfectly describes the ideology of the work. It is in reading the ordinary object as art that we understand the work.

The semiotic meaning of the writing is far more debatable. Duchamp was known for misleading information, but is quoted as saying himself that it was a humorous allude to the makers of the urinal, a newspaper cartoon and a play on the idea of poverty.

Each of the approaches in this case yield similar results, possibly due to the simplicity of the object and idea. Each however shows a different element of the whole.

A theory - Derrida’s Parergon

Objectivist - Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher best known for his theories on deconstruction. In his 1978 text, The Truth in Painting he discussed the frame, coining the term parergon, to explain why when looking at the work the frame is part of the wall, and yet when looking at the wall it is part of the work.  Refused by each to be considered as part of themselves the frame exists between the two, as a separate entity.

Derrida said about the parergon, “neither inside nor outside, neither above nor below, it disconcerts any opposition but does not remain indeterminate and it gives rise to the work.” The function of the parergon, then, is to create a framework that contextualises (and re-contextualises) what is being framed. The parergon is both a literal framing or placement and a metaphysical concept that denotes context.

Haptic - this is the main reason I wanted to undertake this exploration. To understand, or at least articulate, how we might explore a theoretical concept, haptically.  Upon reflection, and quite a few deleted paragraphs I can only conclude that the exploration of this concept haptically is what I am exploring in my studio practice. Haptic research as practice.

Semiotic - The semiotic reading of this theory seems to relate to our understanding of the purpose of a frame. We have a way of reading something in a frame, and there are artists who have taken this often subconscious reading to their advantage.
A frame can be seen as an instruction to look through the lens of art.

Exploring a theory certainly seems to be simplest when done with a quantitative method, like the objectivist interpretation here, at least verbally.

This section has taken the longest to write, while being quite short, but has had the most impact on me. My contextual research to date, including my dissertation from last year, has been similar to this, a deductive objective exploration of theories and artists, which has then been combined with an intuitive haptic method of research in my studio practice.


At the end of this post I've solidified my understanding of the purpose and potential uses of three methods, and I can see the benefit of looking through different methods, to get a more solid grounding about the chosen subject. For future research I plan to use the three used here to research in a similar way, or at least to ask myself “How would I describe or explore this objectively, haptically, and semiotically?” noting the different answers from the different methods.

In the next post - I'm planning to attempt to unpick my theoretical perspective, understand the paradigm and answer a few questions about my own research methodology at the beginning of this exploration.


Selected Bibliography

Barthes, Roland (1957) Mythologies

Barthes, Roland ([1964] 1967). Elements of Semiology (trans. Annette Lavers & Colin Smith). London: Jonathan Cape

Camfield, W A. (1987) ‘Marcel Duchamp's Fountain: Its History and Aesthetics in the Context of 1917.’ Dada/Surrealism (16): 64-94.

Chandler, Daniel (2004) Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge

David James (2015) David James: How to get clear about method, methodology, epistemology and ontology, once and for all [online video] Avaliable from: [Accessed 6th October 2017]

Derrida, J. (1978) The truth in painting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Whiting, M (2017) Research Methodologies. MA program. Bath. 3rd October 2017

Saussure, Ferdinand de ([1916] 1983): Course in General Linguistics (trans. Roy Harris). London: Duckworth. Page 67

Tate (January, 2017) Fountain, Marcel Duchamp [Exhibition visit] London: Tate Britain.

Tate (undated) Marcel Duchamp: Fountain, 1917 [Online] Tate. Available from: [Accessed 07.10.17].

Tompkins, C. (2013) Marcel Duchamp: The afternoon interviews. Brooklyn: Badlands Unlimited.